Medical Marijuana Discrimination Bill Passes House, Heads to State Senate

Arizona's new medical-marijuana law protects qualified patients from discrimination by their employers, a progressive feature that sets it apart from similar laws in other states.

A legislative bill we told you about last month aims to dilute that protection, however, and it has solid support among state lawmakers.

The Patient Discrimination Act, is it might come to be called, gives employers immunity they don't need from lawsuits that might result from the firing or reassignment of a worker who uses medical marijuana or any other illegal drug. Introduced by Representative Kimberly Yee, R-Phoenix, and crafted by the Arizona Chamber of Commerce, HB 2541 expands an existing law that protects drug-testing employers from litigation.

The bill passed the House on Monday with a 56-3 vote.

At least the bill's latest version ditches the part about banning the use of medical marijuana in a "condominium or planned community common area that is open to use by the public." And, though Proposition 203 was the motivation for Yee's bill, it doesn't necessarily discriminate against marijuana: It would apply to any legal or illegal drug that might impair an employee.

Still, Yee's effort to please the state's employers clearly paints a big, green target on medical-weed users. Employers would be immune from wrongful termination lawsuits as long as they had a "good faith belief" that the employee had used or possessed drugs, or was impaired, at a workplace or during work hours. It allows any worker suspected of ongoing "involvement with drugs" to be put on unpaid leave or reassigned, with no legal recourse.

It almost seems like this bill would entitle an anti-pot employer to mess with anyone believed to be carrying a medical-marijuana card.

The voter-approved Prop 203 was never intended to allow impairment on the job, but defines the situation more narrowly than Yee's bill. No discrimination by employers is allowed "unless the patient used, possessed, or was impaired by marijuana on the premises of the place of employment or during the hours of employment."

When we reached Yee by phone at her office yesterday, she asked if we were from the Capitol Times, even though we had identified our affiliation at the outset.

She told us we're over-thinking her bill. It makes clear that "good faith does not include a belief formed with gross negligence," she points out. Concerns about whether it would allow employers to fire medical-pot patients willy-nilly were worked out in committee, Yee says, adding that video of the hearings is available online. The bill had bipartisan support.

"We did the very best job we could to get this implemented from a safety perspective," Yee says. Wanton discrimination against qualified patients "certainly is not my intent."

The bill's new version no longer references the Voter Protection Act and its requirement for a three-quarter majority passage, because the proposed law furthers the intent of Proposition 203, Yee says.

it looks like this bill, now before the state Senate, has a good chance of passing -- meaning Arizonans who voted for Prop 203 may yet learn whether they've been snookered by lawmakers. The Legislature has a poor record when it comes to leaving voter-approved, medical-marijuana laws alone: Tinkering with the 1996 law is what led to the Voter Protection Act.

Yee wasn't happy with our line of questioning, saying, after our previous blog post about her bill, New Times was lucky she took our call.

Actually, as mentioned before, she hadn't exactly taken it..



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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.
Contact: Ray Stern